Summer Time . . . Book Time . . .

It’s that time of year when friends are packing up and heading out on holiday. Books inevitably find their way into carry-ons and suitcases, and I’m sometimes asked to recommend titles. It’s easy if I know their taste (and especially if I share it) but that’s not always the case. When I’m at a loss I always recommend they talk to their favorite book seller or check out some of the lists that pop up at this time of year.

Time Magazine has compiled a list of 22 new books to read this summer:

Since Canada Day is less than a week away, my attention was drawn to the CBC’s 100 Novels That Make You Proud to be Canadian list. Check out their recommendations here:

If you’re buying for children and teens, Scripps National Spelling Bee has released its 2018-2019 Great Works (and Great Words) book list. I especially like that they break their recommendations into very specific age ranges (they use grades but you can easily extrapolate to determine suitability for the children in your life). I also like the fact that they mix classics with contemporary reads.

Finally, if you’re looking for an easy summer beach read you can’t go wrong with one of these romances:

Happy reading and happy travels!

The Importance of Fallow Ground

Gardeners and farmers know the importance of fallow ground. Allowing a field or a garden bed to rest for a bit – to go fallow – gives the soil’s nutrient balance a chance to naturally restore itself. As the ground rests, fertility can be restored. Letting ground go fallow was a common practice centuries ago, but it’s not as common anymore. As commercial fertilizers became more readily available and the agricultural industry became ever more competitive, it became less and less popular to leave land fallow. Constant production was the goal.

Constant agricultural production, however, is rarely sustainable, at least not in any kind of healthy way. And it’s the same for people. Though we can, and often do, push ourselves to constantly produce, we function best when we have time to rest, time to naturally restore ourselves, to go fallow.

With the ground frozen and the garden resting for the winter, and with the holidays nearly here, it seems only natural that we pause not just to celebrate the season but to renew ourselves. To fill the well, however you define that personally.

So along with wishing you a Happy Solstice and a Merry Christmas, I wish you time for peaceful reflection. And time for peaceful reading too.

And the Final Question

What are the three things that trigger your creativity? That was the final question posed by Susan Wiggs at her writing workshop a few weeks ago.

Of all the questions she asked, that one was by far the easiest for me to answer. In fact, so many things trigger my creativity I found it hard to keep it to only three. But when I really stopped to think about it, a number of my creative triggers fall into the same category.


I didn’t see the connection initially. Only later when I read my list did I realize how much inspiration I get from being outside. These were the creative triggers I noted down that fell into the same category: walking on the beach; hiking through the park; cycling into the country; planting, digging and playing in my garden. All of those things give my thinking brain a rest and let my creative side come alive.

Travel feeds my creativity too. Circumstances have been such over the last few years that most of my travel has been the armchair variety, but you’d be surprised by how much inspiration you can get from watching a great travel documentary, visiting an ethnic restaurant or reading travel literature.

That brings me to my final creative trigger: books. In my world, reading is not only a source of information but it’s also something I do for pleasure, for escape, for relaxation and for the sheer joy of it. A good book (and, yes, even a bad book) fires my imagination and fuels my creativity long after I’ve read the last page.

What fuels your creativity?


Impromptu Date

After dinner last week, we had an errand to run in a town 30 minutes away. As we drove in, Mr. Petrol Head was forced to detour because the weekly summer market had taken over the main street. Once our business was done, we headed back that way and spent about 90 minutes wandering the stalls, sampling fresh strawberries, tasting black bean hummus on crackers, and enjoying a few tiny shots of cider. The ocean was at our back and the scent of the sea mingled with the smell of grilled meat and those deadly but delicious market temptations: deep-fried donuts. We chatted to people, patted sweet dogs and listened to a short, impromptu concert.

We had such a good time.

Driving home, I was struck by how infrequently I wander. I’m a planner by nature, generally more disciplined than spontaneous. Even at play I tend to go out with a purpose: I head to a concert or a movie or a lecture; I go out for dinner with Mr. Petrol Head or meet up with friends for drinks. My walking buddies and I text and plan before we link up too: what day, what route, how long. Sometimes we’ll even text in advance about what we want to talk about.

Yeah. Not quite an agenda but not a lot of spontaneity in that. Not a lot of room for wandering, either literally or figuratively.

Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way, is a big believer in artist dates. That’s an hour or longer block of time every week spent with yourself by yourself. Doing something fun to fill the well. She recommends everything from going to a flea market or seeing a vintage movie to lying on the grass and staring up at a tree or possibly even visiting a cathedral. Or maybe the tree is your kind of cathedral. It is mine.

Because I had such a great time at the market last week, I’m taking myself on some artist dates over the coming weeks. Maybe not every week but at least a couple of times a month through the summer. And while Cameron recommends setting these dates up ahead of time, I’m going to block off the time but not set the destination. I’m going to wing it, depending on what’s happening that day and how I’m feeling. I’m going to lean into spontaneity.

I’m going to wander.

Wish me luck.


Having Fun While Pursuing Goals

bicycle-1209682_640Last week, as part of an inventory for the New Year, I wrote a few lists:  things I love and activities I love to do; places that make me happy; my strengths and the things I’m good at; and some accomplishments I’m proud of. I called it my joy inventory and I did it to psych myself up for my annual goal setting session.

Goal setting is all well and good but achieving those goals can be an insidious business. It’s a little like going on a cycling trip. The planning stage is great. You sit down with a cup of coffee and surf travel sites or read guide books. You dream about where you’ll go, what you’ll see. Departure day comes and you’re psyched. And the trip starts out great, it really does, and you’re taking in the scenery and enjoying the daily work out and the feeling of accomplishment. The destination is an eventual goal but the journey is what it’s all about. Everybody knows that including smug little you.

At some point along the way, however, possibly after a day of bitter rain or being forced to detour up a grueling hill, pedaling becomes a chore. You aren’t covering as many miles as you expected to and you’re running into roadblocks as well. Your ass hurts, you stop taking in the view, and the only accomplishment you care about is getting to your destination. So you put your head down and you pedal. You pedal and pedal and pedal on. The trip, you decide, was a terrible idea and clearly not yours. You’ll never do it again.

Until you do.

It’s a lot like goal setting. If you set goals this new year, there’s pretty good chance at some point over the next twelve months you’ll curse yourself out for not reaching your goal fast enough or you’ll get discouraged when you hit a roadblock. You might even decide goal-setting isn’t for you. And maybe it isn’t. But pacing yourself and learning to enjoy life while you work towards your goals helps prevent disappointment and burnout. At least that’s my theory. I’m going to test it out this next year.

I’m going to make time for the activities I love to do. When crap happens and I feel beaten down, I’ll pull out my list of simple pleasures (most of the things I love are simple pleasures) and renew myself that way. If I get discouraged and feel my goals are out of reach, I’ll skim my list of accomplishments and remind myself that I’ve achieved other goals in the past and I can do it again. If I get a bad review or a rejection, I’ll revisit my list of strengths and tell myself I can handle this new challenge too. And at least once over the next year I’ll visit one place that makes me happy and renews my spirit, even if that means I’m only a few miles from home.

I’ve done my joy inventory. I’ve set my goals. And I’m pedalling with optimism into 2017.

Happy New Year and Welcome to 2017!

joywordAt the beginning of a new calendar year we often ask ourselves what we’d like to accomplish in the next twelve months. I do and I’m pretty sure I’m not alone. But when I sat down the other day to think about how my next year will shape up, it occurred to me that there’s something I need to do first.

I need to take inventory. Retailers do it, generally once a year. They check out what they have left in stock, look at what’s sold and what hasn’t. Other businesses review their business plans on an annual or even semi-annual basis. Some do a SWOT analysis (looking at their strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats). I’ve done the SWOT thing with some writer friends several times and it’s a great exercise, especially in a group setting with people you respect and trust. But my next writing retreat is months away so I’m taking stock – taking inventory – on my own this time.

And my inventory list is focusing on joy. Why joy, you ask? Because between Christmas and the New Year I had coffee with an artist friend who confessed she’s feeling burned out. She’s normally the gung-ho sort, always up for a challenge, always creating new things. But she admitted she’s pushing herself to create, and the idea of doing more in 2017 left her feeling exhausted. I can relate. 2016 was a bitch of a year and I felt burned out by the end of it.

I’m pretty sure joy is one of the antidotes to exhaustion and burn out. It certainly helps fill a well that’s close to dry. So if you want to do a joy inventory along with me, grab a pen and paper or sit down with your laptop and open a new file.

We’re going to make a few lists. Don’t groan. It’ll be fun. And since it’s 2017, we’re going to limit each list to 17 items.

List 17 accomplishments you’re most proud of. Do it fast; don’t overthink it. It doesn’t have to be something you accomplished this year. And don’t limit yourself to professional accomplishments either (For example, I’m proud that after ten years we managed to grow a kiwi on our vine in 2016. It speaks to our tenacity and patience).

Note down 17 strengths or things you’re good at, both personally and professionally.

Next, jot down 17 things you love. Come on, this one’s easy. I can think of 17 things I love to eat, for heaven’s sake. Your list might include discovering a new writer. French press coffee. A hot bath on a cold night. The smell of sweet peas. The sound of church bells. The touch of a kitten’s fur.

Then write down 17 things you love to do. Think out of the box. What about travel? Star gazing? Meeting a friend for lunch? Needlepoint? Fixing an old car? Doing your taxes? (okay, maybe not taxes).

Finally, list out 17 places you’ve been that make you happy. If you have trouble with this one, add in a few places you’d love to go that you know would make you happy.

That wasn’t so hard, was it? Now you have a sense of what brings you joy and a written record of your proudest accomplishments. Next week I’ll talk about how to use the joy inventory when it comes to goal setting.


Vacation Time

P1000623Heads up: the blog is taking August off though I won’t be. I’ll be working flat out for the next couple of weeks in an effort to conquer my ‘to do’ list.

I’m just about finished another round of revisions on One Good Deed, I have a book proposal to finish by the beginning of September, and a couple of articles to research and write too. I also have line edits to tackle for Million Dollar Blues and I’ll be exchanging emails with Estrella Cover Art as we work to come up with a cover concept. I’m planning to send that story into the world sometime this fall.

It’s going to be a fun (and busy) three weeks. At the end of it, I’ll be rewarding my efforts by escaping up island for a few days at the beach.

Enjoy the rest of your summer. See you in September!

A Promising Start

readingbythefire (2)2016 started in the best possible way – with time to read. The trick is giving everybody else books for Christmas and then making sure I set aside a block of time after the company leaves but before I have to go back to work.

This year the stars aligned and I had some uninterrupted reading time during the holidays. Having a fridge full of leftovers helped, as did having a relatively clean house. Aside from a few visits with friends (at their house!) and making sure Team Sheltie got out for their daily walks, I was able to relax in front of the fire with a few new books. I’ll be tracking the books I read again this year and tallying up the numbers every month or so. I read 79 books in 2015 which is up from 65 books in 2014 but nowhere close to my goal of reading two books a week.

However, I got off to a good start this year and that’s encouraging! Here’s what I’m reading this month:

On the Kindle: Find the Good by Heather Lende

At the gym: Leaving Time by Jodi Picoult

Beside the bed: Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert

Books read to date in 2016: 4

A Final Look at Filling the Well

Here’s a last look at what some writers do when they’re not at their desks, and how that time doing something completely different impacts, informs or deepens their writing.

Lena Coakley: I love swimming, and I find it really helps get me unstuck when I have writers’ block. I’m convinced that the repetitive motion is a form of meditation. For me there is nothing like it to unravel a plot knot or come up with a fresh, new idea. Lena Coakley is the author of Worlds of Ink and Shadow, coming January 2016 from Harper Collins Canada/Amulet Books

Lindsey Carmichael: I love photography. I have no art skills whatsoever, but I can still create beautiful images using a camera. This visual storytelling is just for me, so it doesn’t have the pressure that comes with writing. But as a nonfiction author, I find that photography has helped me think about how the words I write work together with the pictures that illustrate my books, creating something bigger than either could be alone. I find that while I’m writing, I’m actively thinking about what kinds of images – photographs, charts, diagrams, etc. – could be used to add depth and richness to the story I’m trying to tell. Lindsey Carmichael is the author of Fuzzy Forensics: DNA Fingerprinting Gets Wild (Alopex Editions)

 Loris LesynskiWhat often inspires my writing is talking to strangers. I have always done so, but lately I’ve stepped it up considerably, and I strike up conversations (as soon as I gather the other person is receptive) all day long everywhere I go, gently but quite deliberately. It is so much fun, and I’m told delightful, unique and often touching anecdotes from other people’s lives. I do assess the stranger before I say anything, and so far I haven’t annoyed anyone nor come across unstoppable bores. This all makes my day, from stores to library to street corners, much more interesting than it’s ever been, and informs my writing in many ways. Loris Lesynski is the author of Crazy About Hockey (Annick Press)

Lea TassieI play bridge. Bridge has nothing to do with writing, but it certainly concerns the mind and the mind is key to writing. Bridge is a complex game that requires intense concentration, and that’s the secret. When I play bridge, I don’t think about anything but the game. Nothing else. Not about writing, or food, or sex or the weather. Which means that after, say four hours, my mind is rested. Sure, it’s tired of counting cards and watching my opponents’ faces and bodies for revealing clues about their bidding or strategy, but it’s had a complete rest from writing and the million questions I try to answer every day with my prose. And, having rested, my mind then begins, with renewed energy, to solve old problems or create new plots and characters. Lea Tassie is the author of  Shockwave (Felinity Press)

Ann Marie MeyersOf all the arts, singing is the one that engages my five senses fully and resonates within me. Sometimes, I get lost in the music and find myself in a place where everything is possible, where no barriers exist, and where dreams are waiting to materialize. That’s the place I love to be in to receive ideas and to work out snags and plot in my manuscripts. Ann Marie Meyers is the author of Up in the Air (Jolly Fish Press)

And finally, it’s my turn. Like Frieda Wishinsky and Alice Valdal, I find gardening fulfilling on both a personal level and professional level. On August 5th, Frieda talked about some of the parallels between the two activities: starting out hopeful, waiting and editing, never knowing exactly what you’ll end up with. Recognizing and accepting the things we cannot control (weather, slugs, reviews, sales) but persisting anyway. Last week, Alice talked about how gardening reminds her of her true self and restores her spiritual balance. I can relate. Gardening connects me to something far bigger than me and reminds me of what’s truly important in life. At the same time, it’s also grounding and physically fulfilling. Many times an important character insight or the answer to a plot knot comes when I’m digging in the dirt. Gardening also serves to remind me that seedlings need the right conditions to germinate and grow, in the same way fledgling story ideas need space and care;  that weeding (like story revisions) is necessary; that trends come and go but a beautiful garden, like a good story, is always appreciated. Gardening acts as a reminder that showing up regularly is crucial. And it always brings home the fact that most of the fun is in the act of doing regardless of the final outcome.



More Filling the Well

Taking a break from any kind of work – even writing – is an important part of renewal. This week another five authors share what they like to do in their down time and how it impacts or informs their writing.

Sylvia McNicollLately I have been attending Improv classes with my 14 year-old grandson, Hunter. My acting may not be improving, but I’m collecting some very interesting characters for future reference.Sylvia McNicoll is the author of Best Friends Through Eternity (Tundra)

Alice ValdalIn answer to your question, I would say gardening. I’m a farm girl at heart and working in the soil, planting and harvesting is about more than growing beans and potatoes for the table. The work takes me home, reminds me of my true self, restores my spiritual balance. I never set out to write about home, but throughout all my writing, that theme repeats . . . coming home, finding home, building home, longing for home . . . it sounds a foundational note in all my stories. So, I garden, and write stories in my head and smile as I remember endless summer days as a child when my only companion was my imagination and we had a great time together.Alice Valdal is the author of The Man for Her (Kensington & Amazon)

Janet WhyteAs Langara Library’s media technician, I buy all of the College’s DVDs and sometimes catalogue them, too. Through films, I travel around the world and meet people I’d likely never otherwise know. This week, I met a young woman from Guyana who, despite a disabling health condition, works as a bicycle mechanic. I listened to a minister from Toronto who’s been fighting for gay rights his whole life. And I encountered a homicidal stockbroker I’d rather not spend too much time around! The people I learn about through documentary, educational, and feature films diversify my thinking. Sometimes they reappear in my stories, and sometimes they don’t. But they all become part of my world. Janet M. Whyte is the author of Shot in the Dark (Lorimer)

Lisa McManus LangeThis year I have taken up the sport of archery – something completely different for me. I’m a creative person, not sporty, and little did I know the historic sport would boost my writing. In trying something completely new – something totally different and outside my comfort zone – I have found a confidence and willingness to experiment in my writing I didn’t have before. Although I am a strong believer in the concept of creativity begets creativity, I have come to believe that doing something completely different, and perhaps NOT creative once in a while, enhances my writing output and idea flow.Lisa McManus Lange is multi-published and her next release will be in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Think Possible.

 Lee Edward FodiI’ve always enjoyed traveling and exploring new places. I travel to many places for research and, as an author and specialized creative writing teacher, to some exotic places to deliver programs. Experiencing new cultures and settings definitely inspires my own work and provides me with a lot of fuel for the fantasy worlds I construct. Through the years, I’ve become better at becoming a “recorder”. With my camera and my sketchbook, I record everything that is of interest to me—regardless of whether I know exactly what that inspiration will be used for. The other thing I’ve noticed as I’ve gotten older is that it has become harder to turn off my “inspiration radar.” Last year, I went to Hawaii for an outright vacation with no intention of doing any research or writing. Having said that, I did make sure to pack my notebook since it’s my rule to never get on a plane without it. And it’s a good thing! Once I reached Hawaii, I was so entranced by the variety and scope of the flora and fauna that I was furiously scribbling long passages in my notebook and making detailed sketches for new characters, creatures, and settings. So much for vacation.Lee Edward Fodi is the author of Kendra Kandlestar and the Search for Arazeen(Simply Read Books)

Helaine BeckerEverything I know about writing I learned from running. I’m a terrible runner, mind you. Slow, and prone to griping. But I run anyway.Every run stinks. I can think of a million other things I’d rather be doing – like, hmmm, lying in bed with a book. But I run anyway.Running hurts. It hurts my tender feet. My wonky hip. My lazy lungs. But I run anyway.And even though I hate it hate it hate it most of the time, I run.Writing is the same as running. It hurts and I hate it and its always a slog uphill. But I keep at it. Because running has taught me success is more about heart than talent. It’s taught me to keep plugging away, and that if I stick with it, I will get where I need to be in the end. And it will feel so, so grand when I do.Everything I know about writing I learned from running. Helaine Becker is the author of Dirk Daring: Secret Agent (Orca Book Publishers)